Sunday, January 11, 2009

Tiger territory dwindles

Sri Lanka presses farther into rebel territory

Although Sri Lankans celebrated significant gains against the Tamil Tigers on Monday, the rebels claimed to have killed at least 53 soldiers in fighting.

Jonathan Adams
Christian Science Monitor
Terrorism and Security Update
January 05, 2009

The Tamil Tigers claimed they killed several dozen Sri Lankan soldiers, as the island nation held a day of celebration Monday to mark battlefield successes against the separatists.

Monday's events came days after the government announced it had taken the key rebel stronghold of Kilinochchi – raising hopes of an end to decades of civil war that have ravaged this small island off India's southeast coast.

But that announcement was immediately followed by a Tamil suicide bombing in the capital Colombo that killed two.

In grinding warfare amid monsoon rains in thick jungle terrain, the Sri Lankan military has made progress in recent months in its latest campaign against the rebels, and has repeatedly claimed victory is at hand. The rebels are now confined to "a jungle area slightly larger than the city of Los Angeles," according to the Associated Press (AP).

In honor of the troops, and of those slain in the war, the government held flag-raising ceremonies across the country and called for two minutes of silence, even as the military pressed ahead with its attacks.

The AP said the Sri Lankan military on Sunday took reporters on a tour near the front lines, as soldiers pushed north and east to corner remaining Tamil forces.

The military brought some reporters on a victory tour of the Kilinochchi area, where they watched tanks rumble north to the war zone, attack helicopters fly overhead and heard artillery fire roar through the jungles.

Special forces with rifles and grenade launchers prepared to head to battle as well.

The army was using Paranthan Junction, a strategic crossroads the military captured Thursday, as a staging area to send troops into the fight for two of the biggest prizes remaining in the battle, the rebel-held areas of Elephant Pass to the north and Mullaittivu to the east.

"Day by day, the Tigers' territory is shrinking and their numbers are dwindling. The objective of finishing this war won't be that long off," said Maj. Gen. Jagath Dias, who commanded the battle for Kilinochchi.

For their part, the Tigers released a statement claiming they had killed 53 government soldiers, according to the BBC.

The rebels said the soldiers died in fighting on the main road towards the rebel-held town of Mullaitivu....

"At least 53 Sri Lanka Army soldiers were killed, more than 80 sustained injuries and the Tamil Tigers recovered two bodies of the soldiers in heavy fighting," the pro-Tamil website TamilNet reported.

Sri Lankan military officials denied the rebel casualty claims and said troops had recovered the bodies of 12 Tamil Tigers.

The Times (of London) noted the Tamils' claims were "impossible to verify" amid an "almost complete media blackout."

If the military wins the battle for Mullaitivu district and the nearby Elephant Pass, the whole of Sri Lanka will be back in government hands for the first time since 1983.

Colombo, the capital, was in near-lockdown for a second successive day today with roads throughout the centre of the city closed completely for several hours by military checkpoints amid a fear of a wave of suicide attacks.

A columnist in The Sunday Times, a Sri Lankan newspaper, said the president's announcement of the fall of Kilinochchi on Friday immediately sparked "national euphoria."

In many towns, crackers were lit and the national flag was hoisted in public places. In Colombo, breaking news on TV, radio and even SMS messages had set the stage earlier. The burst of crackers surpassed the crescendo created by fireworks that signaled the dawn of 2009.

Another Sunday Times commentary gave the blow-by-blow of the recent battles, complete with a detailed map.

Still, some analysts warned that despite the government's military successes, the conflict was "far from over," Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported.

And a Japanese official warned only a political solution would fully resolve the conflict. Japan is Sri Lanka's top aid donor and has been involved in seeking a resolution to the war between the government and rebels, according to another AFP report.

Meanwhile, the Financial Times reported that as the Tamil Tigers appeared to face their day of reckoning, India has renewed its call for the extradition of the rebel leader, Veluppillai Prabhakaran, to face trial for the 1991 assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

The attack [on Rajiv Gandhi] was revenge for Gandhi's sending of an Indian peacekeeping force to Sri Lanka four years earlier in a bid to end the bitter ethnic conflict. New Delhi blames the Tigers' secretive leader for the assassination.

Hindu Tamils are a disadvantaged minority in Buddhist Sinhalese-majority Sri Lanka. The Tamil Tigers have waged a struggle for as long as 25 years for a separate Tamil state in northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

The conflict has killed an estimated 65,000 and displaced 200,000 more, according to a background report by the Council on Foreign Relations.

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